From Wartime Miss America To Now
Singer, performer, entrepreneur, mom
The underbelly of beauty pageants is so well exposed by now, treading over the trouble almost seems like a cheap shot. Especially when you’re talking with Oregon’s only Miss America winner, Katie Harman. Harman is so serious about the potential of the Miss America pageant to foster leadership, she’s an outspoken critic of the hijinks associated with “other contests.”
The Miss America pageant is so averse to being linked with the party girl contest that it explains the difference between the two pageants on its website.www.missamerica.org As one Miss USA contestant put it, Miss USA girls want to be Victoria Secret models. Miss America girls want to be doctors and lawyers.
So how do you go about reforming the brand of beauty pageants when one contest turns out party girls and the other turns out political candidates? “You be the change,” Katie Harman said.
Harman was born in Gresham, Oregon to Glen and Darla Harman. She graduated from Centennial High School in Gresham in 1999. A talented and naturally gifted opera performer, Harman entered her first beauty pageant two years prior to winning the Miss America crown. In her first year of competition she won a local title and went on to become the first runner-up to Miss Oregon. During the second year, she won Miss Oregon and entered the Miss America pageant for its scholarship purse, $75,000.
In September of 2001, Harman was crowned Miss America. It was two weeks after the worst terror attack on American soil. The former Gresham resident and student at Portland State University was just 21 years old. She performed a moving and passionate rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro, “ a Puccini aria, delivering just the right tone for an audience that was still raw with emotion. Harman beat 50 finalists, some who were much more practiced in the pageant world and others who came from much more privileged backgrounds.
Despite her own admission that she felt unsteady about who Miss America “was” during wartime, Katie Harman provided exactly what America needed at that time: a clear headed, brave role model who believed in the flag, her country and her role as America’s sweetheart. She endured the physical and emotional wreckage at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. She spent a lot of her year visiting military hospitals and providing a sense of comfort at community events where everyone wore American flags on their lapels. She met many young bachelors during her year-long reign, but one, fighter pilot Captain Tim Ebner, shared her religious and moral values. The two were married in 2003 and eventually moved to Klamath Falls to be near Ebner’s base and raise their family. Harman completed her degree in speech communications, graduating magna cum laude and debt free.
Twelve years later, Harman Ebner still sounds like the Miss America she is, on the stage and off. She has played Kathie in the Student Prince with the Gold Coast Opera in Florida. She was Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro. She’s performed as a vocalist with pianist Andre’ Watts and appeared as herself in the show, Whose Line is it Anyway. She’s released her first music CD, Soul of Love, and continues to act as a judge and coach for the Miss America contest.
What advice does she give young contestants? “Take away the glitz, the glamour, and the crown,” she says, “and what you’ve got left is a public servant. That’s the essence of the Miss America contest, young women who continue to serve their communities.” Harman Ebner says that’s the role she’ll always cherish.
Katie is also an entrepreneur she has her own line of handbag clutches under the name Harman Ebner Finery. And she has developed “True Beauty”- an enriching 45 minute presentation that helps women understand, once-and-for-all, beauty’s unique stamp on each person’s life. She illuminates mystifying elements of outer-beauty and brings truth to clichés about inner-beauty with key concepts, surprising educational insight, funny and deeply moving personal experiences, as well as the positive. She is quite the busy woman.
Since we last talked, you married and had two children!
That’s right we now live just outside of Klamath Falls, Oregon and we are fortunate to live there for almost 8 years. Our son was just about 2 months old when we moved from Portland to Klamath Falls and it’s amazing to me how much life has been lived in that amount of time.
My husband and I were blessed to welcome our daughter in 2009 and so we now have two school-age children. Our daughter’s in preschool and our son is in the third grade and we’re just– it is non-stop wonderful activity. They’re great kids and we’re blessed to have them. They are very exciting and adventurous children.
Being such a busy mom are you still finding time to perform?
Obviously my family’s my first priority but I’m blessed because they give me the opportunity to really foster that love and to continue to travel and perform. I’ve most recently been with the Denver Philharmonic and the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra. I’ve had the great pleasure of performing with the Vancouver Symphony as well and Newport Symphony in Oregon. I really appreciate that there’s still so many people in this great nation who love classical music.
You were an accomplished singer before you came into the Miss America pageant. Do you think your title propelled your performing career?
Susan Powell who was Miss America 1981 said that being Miss America doesn’t necessarily get you the job but it certainly gets your foot in the door. I believe that, the Miss America experience put me on a national stage. I performed in front of symphonies like the Boston Pops and Shreveport, the USO and other wonderful organizations. As Katie Harman, 21-year-old student I would not have been given that opportunity.
I’m certainly grateful for Miss America and I think it propelled me forward in my career and gave me a new perspective of where I wanted to go as a performer. I am a classical singer and I love performing in operas. My goal as a classical performer is to ensure that younger generations and those who appreciate music from a bygone era to hear this music. In my concerts, I like to marry Puccini with Verdi and the masterful tunes by Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee and the wonderful Cole Porter.
Do you still watch the Miss America competitions?
Absolutely! There’s no way I could not watch it. I wasn’t able to attend in person this year and that was a source of heartbreak because it was back in Atlantic City and that’s where I was crowned. I have so many memories of being in Atlantic City for competition primarily because I was there over 9/11 with my class of competitors and the Miss America organization staff, the police and fire that were a part of Atlantic City at that time and so many others who really came around us during such a traumatic time. They became our family.
It seems that during a the Miss America competition there are petty things that get blown out of proportion which takes the focus off the intelligent, motivated women attempting to spread the word about the importance of education. How do you feel about that?
You’re hitting it on the head about distractions. The petty things that the media or others pick up on in the midst of the competition is a distraction from the organization that promotes the education of young women. These women go back into society after competing in the program and they make a difference. I’ve seen it for 12 years as a former Miss America, as a judge, and as a coach. I’ve seen these young women enter and exit the program as thoughtful, intelligent, talented people who genuinely want to make a difference in the world and they do it, they do it. They become our next doctors, lawyers, teachers, homemakers, opera singers. I think that society in general has a very difficult time wrapping their heads around women who want to be seen as upstanding characters not as reality personalities out to make a buck.
Now what do you do to prevent most people from believing that Miss America is a beauty contest full of airheads.
I agree it’s very difficult for the Miss America pageant to remedy the myths and the misconceptions surrounding dumb beauty queens, but it’s the titleholders job to project the image of what we do –to get out and spread the message in an effective and positive manner. Miss America is more than just a swimsuit competition; it’s more than the mythology behind pageantry. Miss America is a serviceperson. You cannot affect change by just simply getting on television and saying this is what is going to change, you have to get into the community, you have to get your hands dirty.
You were elected right after Sept. 11 in what way do you think that changed your role that year?
It changed it dramatically both personally and professionally. For me, I was newly crowned at 21 years old. I was very young to be rushed into the spotlight, it was something that I had dreamed about as a performer and as an aspiring professional. I was not prepared to see such horrors in light of what had happened on 9/11. I was not prepared to see death, especially in the faces of the family members of those who had lost loved ones. I remember going into the Pentagon the week after being crowned, the day after the attack. I met family members of all of the victims who were lost at the Pentagon, on the ground and in the airplane. I will never forget that feeling of despair, also that life continue, and the legacy will continue through their lives.
I remember circling a large ballroom at a Sheraton that was just operating for those particular family members the walls were lined with memorabilia, photographs and drawings from school children. I marveled at how much life there was in that room in the midst of death. That experience encapsulated what was my year as Miss America. It was that acknowledgement from the American people that there would still be life in the midst of death. I’m not ashamed to say it but I’m 33 years old and at 21 having that experience and being exposed to that was life changing.
Would you encourage your daughter to become a pageant girl?
I have been asked this question and how many times I have contemplated because my daughter is– she doesn’t fall far from the tree. She definitely a dramatic girl, she’s a performer of her own accord and yes, I understand that when your children see you doing something that often times they will want to experiment with that as young ones as well. She’s enamored with the idea of Miss America, she’s enamored with the– with everything surrounding it and of course I’m grateful because she has a different perspective as to what it means to be Miss America. I’m very conscientious about making sure that she knows there’s still much more to it than mommy wearing an evening gown and a crown and being on a stage.
But you didn’t answer the question as to whether you’d let her be in those kiddie pageants.
No I would not– don’t feel that my child– and this is speaking from my personal parent’s perspective, I don’t know that my child needs to participate in a kid pageant. I want her to be of an age to where she can really understand what it means to be a person of service and I think anytime you participate in a pageant you need to understand you’re going to have an automatic spotlight on you and in order to effectively navigate that spotlight she needs to be aware of what it means to be a role model. So I don’t think she’s at a point right now where she understands that.
You need to be able to ride a two-wheeler probably huh?
I agree, I completely agree. Let’s navigate some two-wheelers first.